Change can be difficult and painful, even for large institutions. In corporate America, restructuring often means tearing down and rebuilding, which always hurts, says Lisa Gable. She knows; she’s been the architect of more than a few layoffs and redesigns, charged with turning struggling organizations around. She calls herself the “Hail Mary pass,” the last-ditch effort to salvage a company or program after things go terribly wrong. But she’s unwilling to sacrifice humanity, whether it’s yours or her own. A distressing process needn’t be vicious, she says, lamenting the coldness that has become a norm when workers are let go.
Her father, Pierre Guillermin, co-founder of Liberty University, taught her that bad news demands kindness. So she will sit across the table from the soon-to-be terminated and acknowledge individual value and goodness, as well as the hurt the process causes. She writes recommendations because being let go does not mean the one departing caused the company’s woes or deserved to get laid off.
Her own faith is “very simplistic,” she says. “I am guided by remembering everyone that Christ was willing to treat like an equal: the Samaritan woman, Mary Magdalene, Nicodemus. All three were rejected by their society and yet he sat down with them as an equal.”
She describes her opportunities, mentors and even timing as “incredibly fortunate.” She worked in the Reagan administration during the fall of the Soviet Union. She was with Intel as the American technology giant was wresting 73 percent of the global semiconductor market from Japan. George W. Bush put her in charge of the U. S. delegation to the 2005 World Expo in Japan, bestowing the title and rank of ambassador. Federal money couldn’t be used for the exhibit, so she had to raise millions of dollars while negotiating tricky political terrain. A friend told Deseret she was a “human bridge that would project America’s best face to the world.” She’s also been a United Nations delegate.
Married and a mother, Gable still found time to write books that made Wall Street Journal and USA Today bestsellers lists, including “Turnaround: How to Change Course When Things Are Going South.”
Deseret asked her about hard choices, leadership and compassion.
Deseret Magazine: You often refer to “humanity.” What does that mean to you?
Lisa Gable: No matter how we evolve as a society, every situation comes down to people. Sometimes you have to make hard decisions for financial or political reasons. You also must be willing to recognize how those choices impact someone’s life. How you treat that person during the time of change, the respect that you show them, being willing to sit down and talk with them and acknowledge the pain that you’re about to inflict is so important. I learned that from my father. He was a humble and gracious leader, and he built an organization from scratch. But he never, ever failed to recognize the people who were impacted by his decisions.
DM: What shaped your career path?
LG: As a little girl I knew I wanted to go into national security and foreign policy. In fact, my bedding and my curtains were decorated with military weaponry — right next to my go-go boots. I was a girl’s girl. My father and I shared a strong interest in history. He would take me to battlefields. We’d watch those war movies that were so prominent at that time. But studying history is also how I learned about the human side. When I was 13, our family went on a (Protestant) Reformation tour of Europe with students from Liberty. That was a transformational moment in religious history. I was well-educated in what causes various inflection points in history. At the same time, my father was always reaching across the aisle to figure out how to work together to solve complex problems. So partnerships are a fundamental part of how I manage. I don’t believe in silos.
I try to understand why somebody started this organization in the first place: What was its purpose? Then the key is to determine if that purpose is still relevant.
DM: Where did you learn how to turn around an organization?
LG: As I started at Intel, the U.S. had lost market share in the semiconductor industry. Our national security and technological superpower position were at risk unless we gained it back. I followed this pattern of taking the knowledge that I learned, and then putting it to work with the skills I was trained in. I’d already completed my master’s in national security studies at Georgetown, but Craig Barrett, the CEO at the time, taught me how to use manufacturing processes to solve complex problems. He taught me how to take in methodology and use it to analyze something and then identify a path forward that was cost-effective and met the goals of the organization.
DM: To save a company, how do you know what needs to change?
LG: I do an audit — not only financial. I look at all their communications, I look at the original charters and their bylaws. I try to understand why somebody started this organization in the first place: What was its purpose? Then the key is to determine if that purpose is still relevant. I go back a long way because we have to identify the underlying cause of the organization’s disease. I meet with people at their desks and ask them about problems in the organization. What pain points are they facing? It might be a customer, an employee, a business partner. It could be a philanthropic partner. Along with the analytical part, that enables me to build decision trees.
DM: Is it a long process?
LG: Every time, I have a very short window to figure it all out. An organization may be headed south because financially it’s in the hole, that’s usually the case. Or because of large-scale political opposition.
DM: What is the top thing you see in troubled companies?
LG: Hubris — when an individual forgets that their job is to serve the interests of the organization. What they also fail to recognize is that we are here for a temporary period of time. There are people who went before us and there are going to be people who go after us. Unless you remember that you are a temporary steward of the institution you serve, that’s the leaping-off point for when things go very, very wrong.
DM: What is the price of change?
LG: That depends on how you do it. There are winners and losers in every situation. When I can, I write personal letters of recommendation for people negatively impacted by a downsize. My assumption is that people make bad decisions. It’s not everybody’s fault this thing went sideways. They’re good people, and they deserve to get a job. On a personal level, the cost doesn’t need to be as high as we make it. Sometimes the way that we treat people has a negative effect on their life. Treat people well. You may end up working for that person, or seeing them socially, or even having a relative marry into their family. You may end up wanting to hire them again. This is one moment in time, and we shouldn’t extract a price that destroys people.
DM: What responsibility does a boss have?
LG: The way we’ve taken human resource laws today makes it difficult for companies to be humane. It’s unfortunate that we’ve come to a place where you walk people out of the building and don’t let them go back to their desk. You need to be respectful and acknowledge the good things about them, but also what you’re doing to them. I’ve had people hug me as they were walking out.
DM: Do laws say you can’t be kind?
LG: You can. But companies are stringent — their lawyers are — on what you can say and what you can’t say. I also tell people that when someone has been laid off, and they’re a colleague of yours, please talk to them. It isn’t as if they died.
DM: What’s your last word? WHAT’S YOUR LAST WORD?
LG: Each of us can have a positive impact every single day on someone else. What we build is the steps that we take, the things we do; that’s our legacy, right? So treat them with humility, kindness and graciousness.